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The perils of running a moderately successful video game news website, and why Thumbsticks needs to change for all our sakes.

When Thumbsticks started many, many years ago, we had a simple vision that became the site’s strapline: Interesting Articles About Video Games.

What that looked like, in the early days, was a little disorderly. But it was awesome. A bunch of analysis and essays and long-form criticism from a scrappy group of writers, all enthusiastic volunteers, on a sort of whenever-the-moment-strikes schedule. We weren’t too bothered about stats or trends or ad revenues, and it felt great. The fact that we became a bit of a springboard for new writers was just icing on an already delicious cake.

Then something weird happened. Purely by chance, we published an unusually high number of articles within a small window, and Google seemed to quite like that. As an experiment the following week, we organised our schedule a bit more and Google rewarded us with better rankings and more referrals. A third week, a fourth… the pattern continued.

Naturally, we started to look at how we could build upon this newfound success, minor as it was, and the answer seemed to be to produce articles that were less time-consuming to put together. (We won’t say “easier” because that’s not true – we still applied the same editorial and design standards to everything, regardless.) We were still writing that long-form stuff when the moment took us, but in between, we were writing dozens of news articles and guides and discounts, and Google lapped it up.

This meant Thumbsticks started earning a little bit of money for the first time in its life, which was a bit of a revelation. We could cover site costs! We could pay writers! We could commission articles! (We never felt like we were taking advantage of writers with our volunteer status in the early days because we weren’t making any money, either, but it was still a constant source of guilt. The moment we started to earn money from Thumbsticks, we also started paying writers as much as we could afford. Sometimes more than we could afford.)

And while writers were still pitching us long-form criticism, we were getting more and more success from shorter articles like news and guides, so we tended to commission more pieces in those spaces. The logic was that those were cheaper to commission so we could have more of them, and they would earn more revenue, which would fill the freelance pot and, in turn, allow us to commission more features. Or at the very least, it would allow the old-school Thumbsticks editors to write more interesting features while others were covering the news beat.

But that never really panned out. Slowly, we started to lose writers we couldn’t replace. We received fewer and fewer pitches for features. The news-and-guides-and-discounts grind meant we had more budget than ever before, but we weren’t getting to do what we wanted to with it.

And with the Thumbsticks editorial team working flat out to try and keep the output level high, we weren’t able to produce the long-form, feature stuff ourselves, either. That’s not to say what we weren’t producing wasn’t good, because there’s plenty of value for readers in that space, but it dawned on us that our strapline had changed, right under our noses. 

It was no longer Interesting Articles About Video Games. It was, at best, Useful Articles About Video Games.

We felt like we were just keeping the lights on for the sake of Google traffic and advertising revenues, rather than doing what we wanted to do, which is dissect and discuss and elevate video games and everything that’s brilliant about them. And we’re not getting any younger. Keeping up was getting harder and harder.

So we decided to stop.

We’re not stopping Thumbsticks altogether. We’ve put too much blood, sweat and tears into this stupid website to call it a day now! But we have made a conscious decision that we are going to stop chasing what Google wants, to stop chasing advertising revenues, and to start doing what we want, which is to write Interesting Articles About Video Games again, like the good old days.

What does that look like in reality?

Firstly, we’re going to (almost completely) stop covering news, guides, sales, and the like. That doesn’t mean we won’t still find time to talk about things that are newsworthy, but there’s far more value in a piece of unique analysis on a story than a carbon copy of a press release you can get from a hundred other websites half an hour after a story breaks. This will be better for us, because we’re not killing ourselves trying to keep up with larger, better-resourced sites, and it will be better for you, the readers, because what we do produce will be interesting.

Secondly, we’re going to shift our focus back to features, analysis, and long-form criticism. This will mean more essays, more interviews, and more regular segments. Think of it more like a digital magazine than the news site we accidentally became. We’ll also move back to commissioning freelance writers for features and long-form writing and nothing else, so there will be new opportunities, fresh voices, and different perspectives on the site once more.

Thirdly, we’re going to take this opportunity to have a short break. We’re not going on holiday, but you may have noticed we’ve been a bit quiet of late, and you might not see many new articles on the site for a bit while we put this plan into action. In addition to planning our lovely new content, we’re also redeveloping the site to tie in with this new feature-led, magazine-style focus and, based on the preliminary work we’ve done, we think you’re in for an absolute treat. It’s really like nothing else in this space and we’re really proud of it.

And finally, with this redesign, we’re scrapping the site’s display advertising. Yes, all of it. (Sorry to our ad provider if this is how you’re finding out – we didn’t want to cancel our contract right away in case we had a last-minute change of heart!) That’s our entire revenue stream pretty much stopped overnight. And we do have a little money in reserve for site expenses and freelance commissioning, but that won’t last forever, so we’ll be relying on your support to allow us to continue giving opportunities to new writers. 

It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure, to deliver such a pivot to both our content strategy and our revenue model, but we think it’s important. It’s important to give the subject matter its due. It’s important to give new writers and voices an opportunity to tell their stories rather than simply parroting news articles. And it’s really important for us to be able to do something we actually enjoy, and at a reasonable pace, because nobody wants to die of a heart attack recycling a press release about the Bubsy reboot.

Please stand by. Thumbsticks will return, and Interesting Articles About Video Games are coming back.

Thanks for all your support, now and over the years.

Dan & Tom

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